Wisconsin power-line debate nears
UTILITIES:Hearings begin Tuesday on the proposed Arrowhead-Weston
line from Hermantown to Wausau.
By Steve Kuchera
Duluth News Tribune
Supporters and critics of the controversial and once-approved
Arrowhead-Weston power line are ready for a rematch when
hearings convene this week.
Both sides are confident they'll prevail before the Public
Service Commission of Wisconsin.
"We have a good solid case going for us," said
Tom Kreager, president of Save Our Unique Lands, a grass-roots
group that opposes the project. "If we get an honest,
unbiased decision, the commission will be telling the
American Transmission Company to pursue one of the other
American Transmission would operate the high-voltage
line. Vice president Mark Williamson is equally confident
the commission again will approve construction plans.
"Everyone agrees the costs are reasonable given
the complexity of the project, and that's really the key
issue," he said.
Commissioners approved Wisconsin segments of the proposed
Hermantown to Wausau line in August 2001. They reopened
the case after American Transmission reported in November
2002 that costs had soared, citing stricter environmental
safeguards, higher land costs and a two-year project delay.
Projected costs rose from $165.7 million in 2001 to more
than $400 million.
Tuesday, commissioners will begin a series of technical
and public hearings to compare current costs with possible
alternatives. The analysis will help determine whether
Arrowhead-Weston remains an acceptable choice.
Earlier this year, commissioners hired consultant R.W.
Beck to analyze cost factors. Beck set costs at $410.7
million -- reasonable considering the project's size and
Beck, however, said building a line alongside the existing
King-Weston line between the Twin Cities and Wausau would
cost $26.3 million less than Arrowhead-Weston. SOUL's
Kreager believes it's a preferable option.
"King-Weston is definitely better in both engineering
and costs," he said.
Williamson disagrees, noting there are many unknowns
about the King-Weston route that could easily escalate
costs or block the project entirely.
Building high-voltage transmission lines often is a divisive
and difficult process. People oppose Arrowhead-Weston
fearing it will damage their health, their property values
and the environment. Supporters say the line will help
Wisconsin meet its growing energy demand and increase
reliability for the regional high-voltage transmission
Wisconsin has only four high-voltage transmission lines
(200 kilovolts or greater) connecting it to other states.
Minnesota has 18.
On Tuesday, American Transmission released a report stating
that Wisconsin needs to improve its ability to import
and transport electricity. It would cost about $2.8 billion
during the next 10 years to build all projects proposed
in the report.
Kreager said Arrowhead-Weston should be considered in
connection with the entire proposal.
"There is enough time to plan for a transmission
line that would take care of reliability issues, that
would be integrated with the long-term transmission planning
that ATC is already looking at and that would fit into
the solution better," he said.
Williamson disagrees that Wisconsin can wait longer to
add more connections to another state.
"This line should have been in service in '97, and
until we get it in service, we have significant parts
of the state that are in jeopardy of having a blackout,"
SOUL's expert witnesses will testify that, rather than
increasing the reliability of the region's transmission
system, Arrowhead-Weston would actually be one of the
first power lines to fail in a blackout resembling the
August failure that hit eastern states and provinces.
"He's just plain wrong in our view," Williamson
said. "These are conclusions he's making without
the benefit of looking at it."
The 345-kilovolt Arrowhead-Weston would carry 600 to
750 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 180,000
to 225,000 homes.
While commissioners haven't set a deadline to make their
decision, "they do want to move as quickly as possible,"
PSC spokeswoman Linda Barth said.
"If they approve it yet this year, we will be back
doing our land acquisition processes," Williamson
said. "That takes a little over a year. We're hoping
to be able to start construction in the latter part of
Even if American Transmission receives state approval,
much remains to be done before construction begins. The
company still needs wetland permits from Wisconsin regulators,
several counties oppose the project and will not allow
it to cross their property, and the company hasn't received
National Park Service permission to cross the Namekagon
"We're still writing the environmental impact statement,"
said Jill Medland, a planning specialist with the Saint
Croix National Scenic River. "We expect to publish
a draft environmental impact statement for public review
about the end of October."
The public will have 60 days to comment on the draft